The New Magazine, April 1927
The Opening Chapters.
LOVERS—successful ones—have to be resourceful fellows. But George Finch’s predicament might well have taxed resources profounder than his. George, immaculate tenant of an immaculate small bachelor flat in New York, was madly in love with Molly Waddington, beautiful as unattainable, stepdaughter of Mrs. Sigsbee H. Waddington—and daughter of Mr. Waddington who tried hard to matter, but only succeeded in being foolish; no husband should have expected to matter with a wife like Mrs. Waddington. By careful manœuvering George “insinuated” himself into dinner at Molly’s home midst a bevy of millionaires, snatched a tête-à-tête with Molly, and found himself forbidden the house.
George had a friend, Hamilton Beamish, a health-and-culture fiend, author of “English Pure and Marriage Sane.” He didn’t approve of love at first sight, but having strangely fallen a victim to it himself he did what he could for his friend.
But when Mrs. Waddington had been talked into reluctant acquiescence and the marriage (so Molly declared) was arranged, difficulties still arose. Mr. Waddington had to hire a girl-crook to steal his daughter’s pearls, or face his wife’s wrath for having substituted faked gems; and the girl—“Fanny”—succeeds by making a scene in the room where the wedding-presents are—a scene for which Hamilton Beamish had hired her for quite another purpose, viz., to free George from the menace of May Stubbs, a girl from George’s past. May Stubbs, however, is really Madame Eulalie, the girl Hamilton loves, and his plan merely results in Mrs. Waddington postponing George’s wedding.
Meanwhile, Mr. Waddington returns from a fruitless search after a policeman on whom he had planted a block of worthless shares which a man named United Beef now tells him have suddenly become worth thousands.
OICES reached Mr. Waddington’s ears as he opened the door. They ceased as he entered and Mrs. Waddington looked up peevishly.
“Where have you been, I should like to know?” she said.
Sigsbee H. was ready for this one.
“I took a long country walk. A very long country walk. I was so shocked, horrified and surprised by that dreadful scene that the house seemed to stifle me. So I took a long country walk. I have just got back. What a very disturbing thing to happen! Ferris says it could never have occurred at Braugmarley Hall.”
Molly, somewhat red about the eyes and distinctly mutinous about the mouth, spoke for the first time.
“I’m sure there is some explanation.”
“Tchah!” said Mrs. Waddington.
“I know there is.”
“Then why did not your precious Finch condescend to give it?”
“He was so taken aback.”
“I don’t wonder.”
“I’m sure there was some mistake.”
“There was,” said Mr. Waddington. He patted his daughter’s hand soothingly. “The whole thing was a put-up job.”
“Kindly talk sense, Sigsbee.”
“I am talking sense.”
“What you call sense, perhaps, but not what anyone outside the walls of an institution for the feeble-minded would call sense.”
“Is zat so?” Mr. Waddington put his thumbs in the armholes of his waistcoat and felt rather conquering. “Well, let me tell you that that girl simply pretended to be what she wasn’t so as to fool you into thinking she wasn’t what she was.”
Mrs. Waddington sighed despairingly.
“Go away, Sigsbee,” she said.
“That’s all right about ‘Go away, Sigsbee.’ I’m telling you that that girl was a crook. She couldn’t get in any other way, so she pulled that discarded stuff. She was after the wedding-presents.”
“Then why did she not take them?”
“She did. She took Molly’s pearl necklace.”
“You heard. She took Molly’s pearl necklace.”
“Well, it’s gone.”
Molly had risen with shining eyes.
“I thought as much. So my dear, darling George is innocent after all.”
Very few people in this civilised world have ever seen a baffled tigress, but anybody who could have watched Mrs. Waddington’s face at this moment would have gained a very fair knowledge of how baffled tigresses look.
“I don’t believe it,” she said sullenly.
“Well, the necklace has gone, hasn’t it?” said Sigsbee H. “And you don’t suppose any of the guests took it, do you? Though I wouldn’t put it past that Lord Hunstanton guy. Of course that girl has got it. She fainted on the wedding-present table, didn’t she? She said she wanted air and rushed out, didn’t she? And nobody’s seen her since, have they? If it hadn’t been for going for my long country walk, I’d have got on to this hours ago.”
“I’m going straight to New York to see George and tell him,” said Molly, breathing quickly.
“You will do nothing of the kind,” said Mrs. Waddington, rising.
“And I’m going to New York to see the police,” said Sigsbee.
“You are certainly not! I will go to New York, and I will inform the police. You and Molly will stay here.”
“But listen . . .”
“I want no further discussion.” Mrs. Waddington pressed the bell. “As for you,” she said, turning to Molly, “do you suppose I am going to allow you to pay nocturnal visits to the apartments of libertines like George Finch?”
“He is not a libertine.”
“Certainly not,” said Sigsbee H. “A very fine young fellow. Comes from Idaho.”
“You know perfectly well,” Molly went on, “that what father has told us absolutely clears George. Why, the girl might just as well have come in and said that father had deserted her.”
“Here!” said Mr. Waddington. “Hi!”
“She only wanted an excuse for getting into the house.”
“It is possible,” said Mrs. Waddington, “that in this particular instance George Finch is not so blameworthy as I had at first supposed. But that does not alter the fact that he is a man whom any mother with her daughter’s happiness at heart must regard with the deepest suspicion. He is an artist. He has deliberately chosen to live in a quarter of New York which is notorious for its loose thinking and Bohemian ways. And . . .”
The door opened.
“You rang, madam?”
“Yes, Ferris. Tell Bassett to bring the car round immediately. I am going to New York.”
“Very good, madam.” The butler coughed. “I wonder, madam, if it is not taking a liberty, if I might be permitted to ride on the box-seat beside the chauffeur?”
There are occasions in life when to give one’s true reasons for some particular course of action would be tedious. The actual explanation of the butler’s desire to visit the metropolis was that he wished to pay a call upon the editor of that bright and widely-read weekly paper, Town Gossip, in order to turn an honest penny by informing him of the sensational scene which had occurred that day in the highest circles. Almost immediately after the facts of this scandal in high life had been called to his attention, Ferris had started to telephone the Town Gossip offices in order to establish communication, only to be informed that the editor was out of town. At his last attempt, however, a cautious assistant, convinced at length that the butler had something of real interest up his sleeve and was not disposed to reveal it to underlings, had recommended him to call upon L. Lancelot Biffen, the editor-in-chief, at his private address on the ninth floor of the Sheridan Apartment House, near Washington Square. Mr. Biffen, the assistant thought, would be back after dinner.
All this the butler could, of course, have revealed to his employer, but, like all men of intellect, he disliked long explanations.
“I have just received a communication informing me that a near relative of mine is ill in the city, madam.”
“Oh, very well.”
“Thank you, madam. I will inform Bassett at once.”
“Besides,” said Mrs. Waddington, as the door closed, going on where she had been interrupted, “for all we know, the girl’s story may have been perfectly true, and her theft of the pearls the result of a sudden temptation on the spur of the moment.”
“Well, why not? I suppose she was in need of money. No doubt your Finch callously omitted to provide for her in any way.”
“You’ve got it all wrong,” said Sigsbee H.
“What do you know about it?” said Mrs. Waddington.
“Nothing,” said Sigsbee H., prudently.
“Then kindly refrain from talking nonsense.”
Mrs. Waddington left the room with ponderous dignity, and Sigsbee H., still prudent, closed the door.
“Say, listen, Molly,” he said. “I’ve got to get up to New York right away. I’ve just got to.”
“So have I. I certainly mean to see George to-night. I suppose he has gone back to his apartment.”
“What’ll we do?”
“Directly the car has gone, I’ll run you up in my two-seater.”
“At-a-baby!” said Mr. Waddington fervently. “That’s the way to talk.”
He kissed his daughter fondly.
Mrs. Waddington found the authorities at Police Headquarters charming. It was some little time before they corrected their initial impression that she had come to give herself up to justice for committing a jewel robbery: but, this done, they threw themselves heart and soul into her cause and became extraordinarily helpful. True, they were forced to admit that the description which she gave of the thief conveyed absolutely nothing to them; but if it had done, they assured her, she would have been amazed at the remorseless speed with which the machinery of the Law would have been set working.
If, for instance, the girl had been tall and thin with shingled auburn hair, they would have spread the net at once for Chicago Kitty! If, on the other hand, she had had a snub nose and two moles on her chin, then every precinct would have been warned by telephone to keep an eye out for Cincinnati Sue. While, if only she had limped slightly and spoken with a lisp, the arrest of Indianapolis Edna would have been a mere matter of hours. As it was, they were obliged to confess themselves completely baffled; and Mrs. Waddington came away with the feeling that, if she had not happened to possess large private means, she could have gone into the jewel-stealing business herself and cleaned up big without any fear of unpleasant consequences. It was wrong of her, of course, to call the chief detective a fat-faced goop, but by that time she had become a little annoyed.
She was still annoyed as she came out into the street, but the pleasant night air had a cooling effect. She was able now to perceive that the theft of the necklace was, after all, only a side-issue, and that there lay before her sterner work than the mere bringing to book of female criminals. The consummation to which she must devote all her faculties was the downfall of George Finch.
It was at this point that she decided that she needed an ally, a sympathetic coadjutor who would trot along by her side and do what he was told and generally supply aid and encouragement in the rather tricky operations on which she was about to embark. She went to a public telephone-office and invested five cents in a local call.
“This is Mrs. Waddington.”
“Oh, ah? Many happy returns.”
“What are you doing just now?”
“I was thinking of popping out and having a bit to eat.”
“Meet me at the Ritz-Carlton in ten minutes.”
“Right ho. Thanks awfully. I will. Yes. Thanks. Right. Fine. Absolutely. Right ho.”
So now we find Mrs. Waddington seated in the vestibule of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, watching the door like a cat at a mouse-hole and tapping the carpet impatiently with an ample shoe. Like everybody else who has ever waited five minutes for anybody in a restaurant, she had the illusion of having been there for several hours. But at last her patience was rewarded. An elegant figure shimmered through the doorway and came towards her, beaming with happy anticipation. Lord Hunstanton was a man who combined a keen appetite with a rugged distaste for paying for his own meals, and the prospect of a dinner at the Ritz at somebody else’s expense enchanted him. He did not actually lick his lips, but as he looked brightly up the stairs to where benevolent waiters were plying contented diners with food, there flitted across his face a radiant smile.
“Hope I’m not late,” said Lord Hunstanton.
“Sit down,” said Mrs. Waddington. “I want to talk to you.” And proceeded to do so at some length.
Lord Hunstanton blinked pathetically.
“I’m awfully sorry,” he said, as his companion paused for breath. “I know it’s all frightfully interesting, but I don’t seem somehow to follow. How would it be if we slid into the dining-room and threshed the whole thing out quietly over a thoughtful steak or something?”
Mrs. Waddington eyed him with a distaste that bordered on contempt.
“You surely do not imagine that I propose to waste time eating.”
“Eh?” His lordship’s jaw fell an inch. “Not eat?”
“Certainly not. I will repeat what I was saying, and please listen attentively this time.”
“But I say! No dinner?”
“No fish? No nourishment of any description?”
“Certainly not. We have no time to lose. We must act promptly and swiftly.”
“How about a sand——?”
“You were present at that appalling scene this afternoon,” said Mrs. Waddington, “so there is no need to describe it to you. You will not have forgotten how that girl came into the room and denounced George Finch. You recall all she said.”
“I do indeed. It was the real ginger.”
“But unfortunately untrue.”
“It was a ruse. She was a thief. She did it in order to steal a pearl necklace belonging to my stepdaughter, which was among the wedding-presents.”
“No, really? I say! Fancy that!”
“Unfortunately there seems to be no doubt of it. And so, instead of being appalled at George Finch’s moral turpitude, my stepdaughter looks upon him as a much-injured man and wishes the marriage to take place as arranged. Are you listening?”
Lord Hunstanton started. There had come frolicking towards him from the dining-room a lively young smell composed principally of tournedos and gravy, and his attention had wandered.
“Sorry,” he said. “Thinking of something else for the moment. You were saying that Miss Waddington was appalled at George Finch’s moral turpitude.”
“I was saying precisely the reverse. She is not appalled.”
“No? Very broad-minded, these modern girls,” said Lord Hunstanton, turning away and trying not to inhale.
“But,” proceeded Mrs. Waddington, “I am convinced that, although in this particular matter this Finch may be blameless, his morals, if we only knew it, are as degraded as those of all other artists. I feel as certain as I am that I am sitting here that George Finch is a loose fish.”
“Fish!” moaned Lord Hunstanton.
“And I have made up my mind that there is only one thing to do if I am to expose the man in his true colours, and that is to go to the den which he maintains near Washington Square and question his man-servant as to his private life. We will start at once.”
“But, I say, you don’t need me?”
“Certainly I need you. Do you imagine that I propose to call at this man’s lair alone?”
Across the landing at the top of the stairs there passed a waiter bearing a tray with a smoking dish upon it. Lord Hunstanton followed him with haggard eyes, and, having watched him enter the restaurant, wished he had not done so, for there by one of the tables stood another waiter carving for a party of four what looked like the roast chicken of a lifetime—one of those roast chickens you tell your grandchildren about. His lordship uttered a faint, whinnying sound and clenched his hands.
“Come!” said Mrs. Waddington. “Let us go.”
The thought of defying this overpowering woman did not enter Lord Hunstanton’s mind. Nobody ever defied Mrs. Waddington. And so, some little time later, a cab drew up outside the Sheridan Apartment House and two figures proceeded to climb the stairs—for it was one of the pleasing features of the Sheridan that the elevator was practically always out of order.
Arrived at the top floor, Lord Hunstanton rang the bell. The sound echoed faintly within.
“Seems to be out,” said his lordship, having tried again.
“We will wait.”
“On the roof.”
“Until this Finch’s man-servant returns.”
“But he may be hours.”
“Then we will wait hours.”
Lord Hunstanton’s aching interior urged him to protest. “Be brave!” it gurgled. And, while still not sufficiently courageous to defy, he nerved himself to make a suggestion.
“How would it be,” he said, “if I just pushed round the corner somewhere and snatched a bite? I mean to say, you never know whether this man-servant fellow won’t turn nasty. Sticking up for the young master, I mean to say. In which case I should be twice the man with a bit of food inside me. With a dish of beans or something nicely poised within, I could do my bit.”
Mrs. Waddington regarded him scornfully.
“Very well. But kindly return as soon as possible.”
“Oh, I will, by Jove! Just want to pack away a hasty prune. I’ll be back before you know I’ve gone.”
“You will find me on the roof.”
“On the roof. Right! Well, tinkerty-tonk, for the moment,” said his lordship, and pattered off down the stairs.
Mrs. Waddington mounted another flight, and came out under the broad canopy of heaven. She found herself with a choice of views—the glittering city that stretched away below and the dark windows of the Finch lair. She chose the windows and watched them narrowly.
She had been watching them for some considerable time when suddenly the middle ones, the small windows, lit up. And, as she stepped forward, her rosiest dreams were realised. Across the yellow blind there passed a shadow which was plainly that of a young female person, no doubt of a grade of morality so low that in any other place but Washington Square it would have provoked the raised eyebrow and the sharp intake of the breath. Mrs. Waddington advanced to the window and tapped upon it imperiously.
There was a startled exclamation from within. The blind shot up, revealing a stoutish man in sober black. The next moment the window was opened, and the stoutish man popped his head out.
“Who’s there?” he asked.
“I am,” said Mrs. Waddington.
“Jiminy Christmas!” said the stoutish man.
Frederick Mullett had been in a nervous frame of mind all the afternoon—more nervous even than that of the ordinary bridegroom on his wedding-day. For he had been deeply exercised for many hours past by the problem of what his bride had been up to that afternoon.
Any bridegroom would be upset if his newly-made wife left him immediately after the ceremony on the plea that she had important business to attend to and would see him later. Frederick Mullett was particularly upset. It was not so much the fact that he had planned a golden afternoon of revelry, including a visit to Coney Island, and had had to forego it, that disturbed him. That the delightful programme should have been cancelled was, of course, a disappointment; but what really caused him mental anguish was the speculation as to what from the view-point of a girl like Fanny constituted important business. Her reticence on this vital question had spoiled his whole day.
He was, in short, in exactly the frame of mind when a man who has married a pickpocket and has watched her go off on important business does not want to hear people tapping sharply on windows. If a mouse had crossed the floor at that moment, Frederick Mullett would have suspected it of being a detective in disguise. He peered at Mrs. Waddington with cold horror.
“What do you want?”
“I wish to see and question the young woman who is in this apartment.”
Mullett’s mouth felt dry. A shiver ran down his spine.
“What young woman?”
“There isn’t any young woman here.”
“There isn’t, I tell you.”
Mrs. Waddington’s direct mind was impatient of this attempt to deceive.
“I will make it worth your while to tell the truth,” she said.
Mullett recoiled. The thought that he was being asked to sell his bride on the very day of their wedding revolted him. Not that he would have sold her at any time, of course, but being asked to do so on this day of all days made the thing seem, as Officer Garroway would have said, so peculiarly stark and poignant.
With a frenzied gesture of abhorrence he slammed the window. He switched off the light, and with agonised bounds reached the kitchen, where Mrs. Frederick Mullett was standing at the range stirring a welsh rarebit.
“Hello, sweetie!” cooed his bride, looking up. “I’m just fixing the welsh. The soup’s ready.”
“And we’re in it,” said Mullett hollowly.
“Why, whatever do you mean?”
“Fanny, where did you go this afternoon?”
“Just down into the country, dearie. I told you.”
“Yes, but you didn’t tell me what you did there.”
“It’s a secret for the present, darling. I want to keep it as a surprise. It’s something to do with some money that’s coming to us.”
Mullett eyed her wanly.
“Fanny, were you doing a job this afternoon down there in the country?”
“Why, Freddy Mullett! What an idea!”
“Then what are the bulls here for?”
“There’s a female dick out on the roof right now. And she’s asking for you.”
Fanny stared, round-eyed.
“Asking for me? You’re crazy.”
“She said ‘I wish to see and question the young woman who is in this apartment.’ Those were her very words.”
“I’ll take a peek at her.”
“Don’t let her see you,” begged Mullett, alarmed.
“Is it likely!”
Fanny walked composedly to the sitting-room. She felt no concern. The most comforting possession in the world is, of course, a quiet conscience; but almost as good is the knowledge that you have left no tracks behind you. Fanny was positive that, on taking her departure from the Waddington home at Hempstead that afternoon, she had made a nice clean getaway and could not possibly have been followed to this place by even the most astute of female dicks. Mullett, she was convinced, must have misunderstood this woman, whoever she might be.
She drew the blind aside an inch and looked cautiously out. The intruder was standing so close to the window that it was possible, even in the uncertain light, to get an adequate view of her; and what she saw reassured Fanny. She returned to her anxious husband with words of cheer.
“That’s no dick,” she said. “I can tell ’em a mile off.”
“Then who is she?”
“You’d better ask her. Listen! You go and kid her along and I’ll sneak out. Then we can meet somewhere when you’re through. It’s a shame having to waste this nice supper, but we’ll go to a restaurant. Listen! I’ll be waiting for you at the Astor.”
“But if she’s not a dick, why not stay where we are?”
“You don’t want people knowing that I’m here, do you? Suppose your boss heard of it, what would he say?”
“That’s true. All right, then. Wait for me at the Astor. Though it’s kind of a swell place, isn’t it?”
“Well, don’t you want a swell place to dine at on your wedding night?”
“I’m always right,” said Fanny, giving her husband’s cheek a loving pinch. “That’s the first thing you’ve got to get into your head, now you’re a married man.”
Mullett returned to the sitting-room and switched on the light again. He felt fortified. He opened the window with something of an air.
“You were saying, ma’am?”
Mrs. Waddington was annoyed.
“What do you mean by going away and slamming the window in my face?”
“Had to see to something in the kitchen, ma’am. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“There is. I wish to know who the young woman is who is in the apartment.”
“No young woman in this apartment, ma’am.”
Mrs. Waddington began to feel that she was approaching this matter from the wrong angle. She dipped in her bag.
“Here is a ten-dollar bill.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“I should like to ask you a few questions.”
“Very good, ma’am.”
“And I shall be obliged if you will answer me truthfully. How long have you been in Mr. Finch’s employment?”
“About a couple of months, ma’am.”
“And what is your opinion of Mr. Finch’s morals?”
“Nonsense. Don’t attempt to deceive me. Is it not a fact that during your term of employment you have frequently admitted female visitors to this apartment?”
“Only models, ma’am.”
“Mr. Finch is an artist.”
“I am aware of it,” said Mrs. Waddington with a shiver. “So you persist in your statement that Mr. Finch’s mode of life is not irregular?”
“Then,” said Mrs. Waddington, twitching the ten-dollar bill neatly from his grasp, “it may interest you to know that I do not believe you.”
“Here, hey!” cried Mullett, deeply moved. “You gave me that!”
“And I have taken it back,” said Mrs. Waddington, replacing the bill in her bag. “You do not deserve it.”
Mullett dragged down the blind, outraged in his finest feelings. For some moments he stood, fermenting. Then, seething with justifiable indignation, he switched off the light once more and went out.
He had reached the foot of the stairs when he heard his name spoken, and, turning, was aware of a long policeman regarding him with a mild friendliness.
“Surely it is Mr. Mullett?” said the policeman.
“Hullo?” said Mullett, somewhat embarrassed. Habit is not easily overcome, and there had been a time when the mere sight of a policeman had made him tremble like a leaf.
“You remember me? My name is Garroway. We met some weeks ago.”
“Why, sure,” said Mullett, relieved. “You’re the poet.”
“It is very nice of you to say so,” said Officer Garroway, simpering a little. “I am about to call at Mr. Beamish’s apartment now with my latest effort. And how has the world been using you, Mr. Mullett?”
“All right. Everything hunky-dory with you?”
“Completely. Well, I must not detain you. No doubt you are on your way to some important appointment.”
“That’s right. Say!” said Mullett, suddenly inspired. “Are you on duty?”
“Not for the moment.”
“But you wouldn’t object to making a cop?”
“By no means. I am always willing—and, indeed, anxious—to make a cop.”
“Well, there was a suspicious character on our roof just now. A woman. I didn’t like the look of her.”
“Indeed? This is extremely interesting.”
“She was snooping around, looking in at our windows, and I don’t think she’s up to any good. You might go and ask her what she wants.”
“I will attend to the matter immediately.”
“If I was you, I’d pinch her on suspicion. So long.”
“Good night, Mr. Mullett.”
Mullett, with the elation which comes from a good deed done, moved buoyantly off to his tryst. Officer Garroway, swinging his night-stick, climbed thoughtfully up the stairs.
Mrs. Waddington, meanwhile, had not been content with a policy of watchful waiting. She was convinced that the shadow which she had seen on the blind had been that of a young woman; and instinct told her that in an apartment near Washington Square where there was a young woman present events were not likely to remain static for any considerable length of time. No doubt the man she had questioned would have warned the young woman of her visit, and by now she had probably gone away. But she would return. And George Finch would return. It was simply a question of exercising patience.
But she must leave the roof. The roof was the first place the guilty pair would examine. If they found it empty, their fears would be lulled. The strategic move indicated was to go downstairs and patrol the street. There she could stay until things began to happen again.
She was about to move away, and had already taken a step towards the door that led to the stairs, when a slight creaking noise attracted her attention, and she was surprised to observe the window-blind swinging open.
It swung up some six inches; then, caught by the draught, relaxed again. A moment later there was another creak and it moved outward once more. Apparently, in the agony of losing his ten dollars, the man had omitted to close the window.
Mrs. Waddington stopped. She drew a step nearer. She grasped the frame and, pushing the window wide open, peered into the dark room. It seemed to be empty, but Mrs. Waddington was a cautious woman.
“My man!” she called.
“I wish to speak to you.”
More silence. Mrs. Waddington applied the supreme test.
“I want to return that ten-dollar bill to you.”
Still silence. Mrs. Waddington was convinced. She climbed carefully into the room and started to feel round the walls for the switch. And, as she did so, something came to her through the throbbing darkness.
It was the smell of soup.
Mrs. Waddington stiffened like a pointing dog. Although when sitting in the vestibule of the Ritz-Carlton with Lord Hunstanton she had apparently been impervious to the fragrant scents which had so deeply affected his lordship, she was human. It was long past the hour at which she usually dined, and in the matter of sustenance she was a woman of regular habits. Already, while standing on the roof, she had been aware of certain pangs, and now she realised beyond all possibility of doubt that she was hungry. She quivered from head to foot. The smell of that soup seemed to call to the deeps of her being like the voice of an old, old love.
Moving forward like one in a trance, she groped along the wall, and found herself in an open doorway that appeared to lead into a passage. Here, away from the window, the darkness was blacker than ever; but, if she could not see, she could smell, and she needed no other guide than her nose. She walked along the passage, sniffing, and, coming to another open door, found the scent so powerful that she almost reeled. It had become a composite odour now, with a strong welsh rarebit motif playing through it. Mrs. Waddington felt for the switch, pressed it down, and saw that she was in a kitchen. And there, simmering on the range, was a saucepan.
There are moments when even the most single-minded of women will allow herself to be distracted from the main object of her thoughts. Mrs. Waddington had reached the stage where soup seemed to her the most important—if not the only—thing in life. She removed the lid from the saucepan, and a meaty steaminess touched her like a kiss.
She drew a deep breath. She poured some of the soup into a plate. She found a spoon. She found bread. She found salt. She found pepper.
And it was while she was lovingly sprinkling the pepper that a voice spoke behind her.
“You’re pinched!” said the voice.
There were not many things which could have diverted Mrs. Waddington’s attention at that moment from the plate before her. An earthquake might have done it. So might the explosion of a bomb. This voice accomplished it instantaneously. She spun round with a sharp scream, her heart feeling as if it were performing one of those eccentric South Seas dances whose popularity she had always deplored.
A policeman was standing in the doorway.
“Arrested, I should have said,” added the policeman with a touch of apology. He seemed distressed that in the first excitement of this encounter he had failed to achieve the Word Beautiful.
Mrs. Waddington was not a woman often at a loss for speech, but she could find none now. She stood panting.
“I must ask you, if you will be so good,” said the policeman courteously, “to come along with me. And it will avoid a great deal of unpleasantness if you come quietly.”
The torpor consequent upon the disintegrating shock of this meeting began to leave Mrs. Waddington.
“I can explain!” she cried.
“You will have every opportunity of doing so at the station-house,” said the policeman. “In your own interests I should advise you, until then, to say as little as possible. For I must warn you that in pursuance of my duty I shall take a memorandum of any statement which you may make. See, I have my note-book and pencil here in readiness.”
“I was doing no harm.”
“That is for the judge to decide. I need scarcely point out that your presence in this apartment is, to say the least, equivocal. You came in through the window—an action which constitutes breaking and entering, and, furthermore, I find you in the act of purloining the property of the owner of the apartment—to wit, soup. I am afraid I must ask you to accompany me.”
Mrs. Waddington started to clasp her hands in a desperate appeal; and, doing so, was aware that some obstacle prevented this gesture.
It was suddenly borne in upon her she was still holding the pepper pot. And suddenly a thought came like a full-blown rose, flushing her brow.
“Ha!” she exclaimed.
“I beg your pardon?” said the policeman.
Everything in this world, every little experience which we undergo or even merely read about, is intended, philosophers tell us, to teach us something, to help to equip us for the battle of life. It was not, according to this theory, mere accident, therefore which a few days before had caused Mrs. Waddington to read and sub-consciously memorise the report that had appeared in the evening paper to which she subscribed of a burglary at the residence of a certain leading citizen of West Orange, New Jersey. The story had been sent to help her.
Of the less important details of this affair she retained no recollection; but the one salient point in connection with it came back to her now with all the force of an inspiration from above. Cornered by an indignant householder, she recalled, the West Orange burglar had made his escape by the simple means of throwing about two ounces of pepper in the householder’s face.
What this humble, probably uneducated man had been able to achieve was surely not beyond the powers of a woman like herself—the honorary president of twenty-three charitable societies and a well-known lecturer on the upbringing of infants? Turning coyly sideways, she began to unscrew the top of the pot.
“You will understand,” said the policeman deprecatingly, “that this is extremely unpleasant for me . . .”
He was perfectly right. Unpleasant, he realised a moment later, was the exact adjective which the most punctilious stylist would have chosen. For suddenly the universe seemed to dissolve in one great cloud-burst of pepper. Pepper tickled his mouth, pepper filled his nose, pepper strayed into his eyes and caressed his Adam’s apple. For an instant he writhed blindly, then, clutching at the table for support, he began to sneeze.
With the sound of those titanic sneezes ringing in her cars, Mrs. Waddington bumped her way through the darkness till she came to the open window, then, galloping across the roof, hurled herself down the fire-escape.
The only thing in the nature of a policy or plan of action which Mrs. Waddington had had when making for the fire-escape had been a general desire to be as far away as possible from the representative of the Law when he stopped sneezing and opened his eyes and began to look around him for his assailant. But, as her feet touched the first rungs, more definite schemes began to shape themselves.
Fire-escapes, she knew, led, if followed long enough, to the ground; and she decided to climb to safety down this one. It was only when she had descended as far as the ninth floor that, glancing below her, she discovered that this particular fire-escape terminated not, as she had supposed, in some back alley, but in the gaily-lighted outdoor premises of a restaurant, half the tables of which were already filled.
This sight gave her pause. In fact, to be accurate, it froze her stiff. Nor was her agitation without reason. Those of the readers of this chronicle who have ever thrown pepper in a policeman’s face and skimmed away down a fire-escape are aware that fire-escapes, considered as a refuge, have the defect of being uncomfortably exposed to view. At any moment, felt Mrs. Waddington, the policeman might come to the edge of the roof and look down; and to deceive him into supposing that she was merely an ash-can or a milk-bottle was, she knew, beyond her histrionic powers.
The instinct for self-preservation not only sharpens the wits, but at the same time dulls the moral sensibility. It was so with Mrs. Waddington now. Her quickened intelligence perceived in a flash that if she climbed in through the window outside which she was now standing she would be safe from scrutiny; and her blunted moral sense refused to consider the fact that such an action—amounting, as it did, to what her policeman playmate had called breaking and entering—would be most reprehensible. Besides, she had broken and entered one apartment already that night, and the appetite grows by what it feeds on. Some ten seconds later, therefore, Mrs. Waddington was once more groping through the darkness of somebody else’s dwelling place.
A well-defined scent of grease, damp towels and old cabbages told her that the room through which she was creeping was a kitchen; but the blackness was so uniform that she could see nothing of her surroundings. The only thing she was able to say definitely of this kitchen at the moment was that it contained a broom. This she knew because she had just stepped on the end of it and the handle had shot up and struck her very painfully on the forehead.
“Ouch!” cried Mrs. Waddington.
She had not intended to express any verbal comment on the incident, for those who creep at night through other people’s kitchens must be silent and wary; but the sudden agony was so keen that she could not refrain from comment. And to her horror she found that her cry had been heard. There came through the darkness a curious noise like the drawing of a cork, and then somebody spoke.
“Who are you?” said an unpleasant, guttural voice.
Mrs. Waddington stopped, paralysed. She would not, in the circumstances, have heard with any real pleasure the most musical of speech; but a soft, sympathetic utterance would undoubtedly have afflicted her with a shade less of anguish and alarm. This voice was the voice of one without human pity: a grating, malevolent voice, a voice that set Mrs. Waddington thinking quiveringly in headlines.
“Society Leader Found Slain in Kitchen.”
“Who are you?”
“Body Dismembered Beneath Sink.”
“Who are you?”
“Severed Head Leads Trackers to Death-Spot.”
“Who are you?”
Mrs. Waddington gulped.
“I am Mrs. Sigsbee H. Waddington,” she faltered. And it would have amazed Sigsbee H. had he heard her, to discover that it was possible for her to speak with such a winning meekness.
“Who are you?”
“Mrs. Sigsbee H. Waddington, of East Seventy-Ninth Street and Hempstead, Long Island. I must apologise for the apparent strangeness of my conduct in . . .”
“Who are you?”
Annoyance began to compete with Mrs. Waddington’s terror. Deaf persons had always irritated her, for, like so many women of an impatient and masterful turn of mind, she was of opinion that they could hear perfectly well if they took the trouble. She raised her voice and answered with a certain stiffness.
“I have already informed you that I am Mrs. Sigsbee H. Waddington . . .”
“Have a nut,” said the voice, changing the subject.
Mrs. Waddington’s teeth came together with a sharp click. All the other emotions which had been afflicting her passed abruptly away, to be succeeded by a cold fury. Few things are more mortifying to a proud woman than the discovery that she has been wasting her time being respectful to a parrot; and only her inability to locate the bird in the surrounding blackness prevented a rather unpleasant brawl. Had she been able to come to grips with it, Mrs. Waddington at that moment would undoubtedly have done the parrot no good whatever.
“Brrh!” she exclaimed, expressing her indignation as effectively as was possible by mere speech, and, ignoring the other’s request—in the circumstances, ill-timed and tasteless—that she should stop and scratch its head, she pushed forward in search of the door.
Reaction had left her almost calm. The trepidation of a few moments back had vanished; and she advanced now in a brisk and business-like way. She found the door and opened it. There was more darkness beyond, but an uncurtained window gave sufficient light for her to see that she was in a sitting-room. Across one corner of this room lay a high-backed Chesterfield. In another corner stood a pedestal desk. And about the soft carpet there were distributed easy chairs in any one of which Mrs. Waddington, had the conditions been different, would have been delighted to sit and rest.
But, though she had been on her feet some considerable time now and was not a woman who enjoyed standing, prudence warned her that the temptation to relax must be resisted. It was a moment for action, not repose. She turned to the door which presumably led into the front hall and thence to the stairs and safety; and had just opened it when there came the click of a turning key.
Mrs. Waddington acted swiftly. The strange pall which had been upon her dissolved into a panic fear. She darted back into the sitting-room and, taking the Chesterfield in an inspired bound, sank down behind it and tried not to snort.
“Been waiting long?” asked some person unseen, switching on the light and addressing an invisible companion.
The voice was strange to Mrs. Waddington, but about the one that replied to it there was something so fruitily familiar that she stiffened where she lay, scarcely able to credit her senses. For it was the voice of Ferris, her butler. And Ferris, if the truth was in him, should by now have been at the sick bed of a relative.
“Some little time, sir; but it has caused me no inconvenience.”
“What did you want to see me about?”
“I am addressing Mr. Lancelot Biffen, the editor-in-chief of Town Gossip?”
“Yes. Talk quick. I’ve got to go out again in a minute.”
“I understand, Mr. Biffen, that Town Gossip is glad to receive and pay a substantial remuneration for items of interest concerning those prominent in New York Society. I have such an item.”
“Who’s it about?”
“My employer—Mrs. Sigsbee H. Waddington, sir.”
“What’s she been doing?”
“It is a long story . . .”
“Then I haven’t time to listen to it.”
“It concerns the sensational interruption to the marriage of Mrs. Waddington’s stepdaughter . . .”
“Didn’t the wedding come off, then?”
“No, sir. And the circumstances which prevented it . . .”
Mr. Biffen uttered an exclamation. He had apparently looked at his watch and been dismayed by the flight of time.
“I must run,” he said. “I’ve a date at the Algonquin in a quarter of an hour. Come and talk to me at the office to-morrow.”
“I fear that will be impossible, sir, owing to . . .”
“Then see here. Have you ever done any writing?”
“Yes, sir. At Little-Seeping-in-the-Wold I frequently contributed short articles to the parish magazine. The vicar spoke highly of them.”
“Then sit down and write the thing out. Use your own words and I’ll polish it up later. I’ll be back in an hour, if you want to wait.”
“Very good, sir. And the remuneration?”
“We’ll talk about that later.”
“Very good, sir.”
Mr. Biffen left the room. There followed a confused noise—apparently from his bedroom, in which he seemed to be searching for something. Then the front door slammed, and quiet descended upon the apartment.
Mrs. Waddington continued to crouch behind her Chesterfield. There had been a moment, immediately after the departure of Mr. Biffen, when she had half-risen with the intention of confronting her traitorous butler and informing him that he had ceased to be in her employment. But second thoughts had held her back. Gratifying as it would undoubtedly be to pop her head up over the back of the sofa and watch the man cower beneath her eye, the situation, she realised, was too complicated to permit such a procedure. She remained where she was, and whiled away the time by trying out methods to relieve the cramp from which her lower limbs had already begun to suffer.
From the direction of the desk came the soft scratching of pen on paper. Ferris was plainly making quite a job of it, putting all his energies into his task. He seemed to be one of those writers, like Flaubert, who spare no pains in the quest for perfect clarity and are prepared to correct and re-correct indefinitely till their artist souls are satisfied. It seemed to Mrs. Waddington as though her vigil was to go on for ever.
But in a bustling city like New York it is rarely that the artist is permitted to concentrate for long without interruption. A telephone-bell broke raspingly upon the stillness, and the first sensation of pleasure which Mrs. Waddington had experienced for a very long time came to her as she realised that the instrument was ringing in the passage outside and not in the room. With something of the wild joy which reprieved prisoners feel at the announcement of release she heard the butler rise. And presently there came from a distance his measured voice informing some unseen enquirer that Mr. Biffen was not at home.
Mrs. Waddington rose from her form. She had about twenty seconds in which to act, and she wasted none of them. By the time Ferris had returned and was once more engrossed in his literary composition, she was in the kitchen.
She stood by the window, looking out at the fire-escape. Surely by this time, she felt, it would be safe to climb once more up to the roof. She decided to count three hundred very slowly and risk it.
Molly and Sigsbee Horatio, the latter muttering “Gallagher! Gallagher! Gallagher!” to himself in order that the magic name should not again escape him, had started out in the two-seater about a quarter of an hour after the departure of Mrs. Waddington’s Hispano-Suiza. Half-way to New York, however, a puncture had arrested their progress; and the inability of Sigsbee H. to make a quick job of fixing the spare wheel had further delayed them. It was not, therefore, till almost at the exact moment when Mrs. Waddington was committing the rash act which had so discomposed Officer Garroway that Molly, having dropped her father at Police Headquarters, arrived at the Sheridan.
She hurried up the stairs and rang George’s front-door bell. For a while it seemed as if her ringing was to meet with no response; then, after some minutes, footsteps made themselves heard coming along the passage. The door opened, and Molly found herself gazing into the inflamed eyes of a policeman.
She looked at him with surprise. She had never seen him before and she rather felt that she would have preferred not see him now; for he was far from being a pleasing sight. His nose, ears, and eyes were a vivid red, and his straggling hair dripped wetly on to the floor.
“What are you doing here?” exclaimed Molly.
“Achoo!” replied Officer Garroway.
“What?” said Molly.
“There has been an outrage.”
“Mr. Finch has not been hurt?” cried Molly, alarmed.
“Mr. Finch hasn’t. I have.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Gar-hosh-hoosh-hish!”
“Gar-ish-wash-wush! . . . Garroway,” said the policeman, becoming calmer.
“Where is Mr. Finch?”
“I could not say, miss.”
“Have you a cold?”
“No, miss, not a ker-osh-wosh-osh! A woman threw pepper in my face.”
“You ought not to know such women,” said Molly severely.
The injustice of this stung Officer Garroway.
“I did not know her socially. I was arresting her.”
“Oh, I see.”
“I found her burgling this apartment.”
“And when I informed her that I was compelled to take her into custody, she threw pepper in my face and escaped.”
“You poor man!”
“Thank you, miss,” said Officer Garroway gratefully. A man can do with a bit of sympathy on these occasions, nor is such sympathy rendered less agreeable by the fact that the one who offers it is young and charming and gazes at you with large, melting blue eyes. It was at this point that Officer Garroway began to be aware of a distinct improvement in his condition.
“Can I get you anything?” said Molly.
Officer Garroway shook his head wistfully.
“It’s against the law, miss, now. In fact, I am to be one of a posse this very night that is to raid a restaurant which supplies the stuff.”
“I meant something from a drug store. Some ointment or something.”
“It is extremely kind of you, miss, but I could not dream of putting you to so much trouble. I will look in at a drug store on my way to the station-house. I fear I must leave you now, as I have to go and drish-hosh-hish!”
“But you are dressed.”
“For the purposes of the raid to which I alluded it is necessary for our posse to put on full evening drah-woosh. In order to deceive the staff of the rish-wish-wosh and lull them into a false security. It would never do, you see, for us to go there in our uniforms. That would put them on their guard.”
“How exciting! What restaurant are you raiding?”
Officer Garroway hesitated.
“Well, miss, it is in the nature of an official secret, of course, but on the understanding that you will let it go no further, the rosh-ow-wush is the Purple Chicken, just round the corner. I will wish you good night, miss, as I really must be off.”
“But wait a moment. I came here to meet Mr. Finch. Have you seen anything of him?”
“No, miss. Nobody has visited the apartment while I have been there.”
“Oh, then I’ll wait. Good night. I hope you will feel better soon.”
“I feel better already, miss,” said Officer Garroway gallantly, “thanks to your kind sympathy. Good nich-nosh, miss.”
Molly went out on to the roof, and stood there gazing over the million twinkling lights of the city. At this height the voice of New York sank to a murmur, and the air was sweet and cool. Little breezes rustled in the potted shrubs over which Mullett was wont to watch with such sedulous care, and a half-moon was shining in rather a deprecating way, as if conscious of not being at its best in such surroundings. For, like Sigsbee H. Waddington (now speeding towards his third Gallagher), the moon, really to express itself, needs the great open spaces.
Molly, however, found nothing to criticise in that pale silver glow. She felt a proprietary interest in the moon. It was her own private and personal moon, and should have been shining in through the windows of the drawing-room of the train that bore her away on her wedding journey. That that journey had been postponed was in no way the fault of the moon; and, gazing up at it, she tried to convey by her manner her appreciation of the fact.
It was at this point that a strangled exclamation broke the stillness; and, turning, she perceived George Finch.
(Another long instalment next month)
Printer’s errors corrected above:
In XIV, i, magazine had “tornedos”; corrected to “tournedos”.
In XIV, i, magazine had “Cincinatti Sue”; corrected to ‘Cincinnati’.
In XIV, i, magazine had “his morals, if we only know it, are as degraded”; corrected to ‘knew’ as in all other versions.
In XV, i, magazine had “cride Molly”; corrected to “cried Molly”.
In XV, i, magazine had “as I drish-hosh-hish!”; corrected to “as I have to go and drish-hosh-hish!” as in all other versions.